Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Elizabeth St John reviews Family Business by Renny de Groot

 Today Liz St John reviews Family Business by  R.V. deGroot. The author has kindly offered an ebook as a giveaway. To be in with a chance of winning a copy of this wonderful novel, simply leave a comment below or on our Facebook page.
The winner will be drawn on 28th March
Good luck!

 Set in the Netherlands against the backdrop of the Great Depression and through World War II, Family Business follows the story of Agatha Meijer and her sons, AndrĂ© and Johan, as they build their textile business, a business Agatha is determined her sons will carry on, regardless of their own desires. Family tension comes to a head when the boys each take a stand, sending all their lives spinning in directions none of them would have ever anticipated, and making each of them question the true meaning of loyalty, love, and freedom.

Family Business follows the fortunes of the Meijers, a family living in Holland in the years leading up to and during World War II, and as such, takes us into a world rarely covered by historical fiction novels. In the midst of more familiar stories about the French resistance, or English fighter pilots, the fate of lesser known countries and families is often overlooked, which is a great shame. Ms deGroot remedies this by bringing this time and place vividly to life, through the eyes of Andre and Johan Meijer, and their mother Agatha, the matriarch of the family.
Opening when the brothers are teenagers, we follow their simple daily routines of school, soccer --- and a first girlfriend. Almost immediately, we are introduced to the dark and prevailing will of Agatha, who rules the small family and its precious business with an iron fist. Dominating the narrative throughout the novel, Agatha is the protagonist to all good hopes and dreams. Although one has a reluctant admiration for her strength of character, her grim determination to let no outside influence deter the course she has charted for her boys sets up a series of shattered dreams for the young men. When, finally, through the catalyst of their girlfriends and wives they challenge Agatha’s grasp, she is unable to find pride in their independence, and quickly moves to sever their happiness.
The narrative is fluid, with clear dialogue and a mounting tension facing the inevitability of the German invasion. By the time war does come, we are seriously vested in the lives of Andre and Johan and their wives and families. The inevitable heroism and tragedy of war is no less harrowing because of its predictability, and Ms deGroot handles our emotions tenderly and still offers hope for the future.
Reading the afterword, I wonder if Family Business is based on circumstances within Ms deGroot’s family, or on events told first hand by survivors of the war and their children, which makes the stories even more fascinating. Although at times the characters are a little black and white (I would have loved to have known more about Agatha, and the events in her life that turned her into such an unlikeable creature), I found the descriptions of their lives compelling, and obviously very well researched. The book is a little slow to start, but as time begins to move more swiftly, the pace picks up, and soon we are facing triumph and adversity side by side with the Meijar family.
A very well-written character-driven historical fiction novel, and one that I am really glad I read. I cheered, I cried, and I felt I became part of the Meijar family, and was reluctant to put the book down at its ending. I hope Ms deGroot may write a sequel, for surely the period of post-war challenges holds many opportunities for more of her compelling family stories.
Four out of Five Stars.

About the author:
 Renny deGroot is a first generation Canadian of Dutch parents. Her debut novel, Family Business, was shortlisted for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, 2015.  Her second novel, After Paris, has also been well received, with the current interest in all things WW1.  Renny has a BA in English Literature from Trent University.

Renny lives in rural Ontario with her elderly Chocolate lab, Great Pyrenees and young Golden Retriever. 
Where to find Renny:
Website: Amazon Canada; Amazon US.

About the reviewer:

Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. To inform her writing, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, and Castle Fonmon to the Tower of London. Although the family sold a few castles and country homes along the way (it's hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth's family still occupy them - in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint. And the occasional ghost. But that's a different story...

Elizabeth's Historical Fiction series "The Lydiard Chronicles" follows the fortunes of the 17th Century St.John family through royal favor and civil war. Her latest novel, By Love Divided, continues the story of Lucy St.John, The Lady of the Tower. This powerfully emotional novel tells of England's great divide, and the heart-wrenching choices one family faces.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Diana talks to Tony Robinson-Smith

Last month I went to a talk at the local community library by a former resident of the village, travel writer and world traveller, Tony Robinson-Smith. His talk was interesting, informative, moving, touching and totally inspirational.

Tony Robinson-Smith, his wife Nadya, and ten Bhutanese college students set out to run 578 kilometres (360 miles) across the Kingdom of Bhutan in the Himalayas. Joined by a stray dog, they slogged over five mountain passes, bathed in ice-clogged streams, ate over log fires, and stopped at every store, restaurant, guesthouse, and dzong to raise money for the Tarayana Foundation. The “Tara-thon” was the first endeavour of its kind and gave 350 village children the chance to go to school. En route, the Long Distance Dozen met a Buddhist lama, a royal prince, a Tibetan renegade, and a matriarch who told them the secret to long life. On arrival in Thimphu, they were decorated by Her Majesty the Queen. In this contemplative memoir, Tony describes Bhutan in rich detail at a transformative period in its history and reflects on tradition, belief, modernization, and happiness.

1) I am sure there is a question that you have always longed to be asked. Now is the chance. Ask your own question and answer it!
Which author in your genre do you most revere? Peter Matthiessen (the most introspective of travel writers.)

2) What is the genre you are best known for?
Travel writing

3) If your latest book, The Dragon Run, was adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?
I don't watch many movies... someone skinny who likes distance running could play me!
4) What made you choose this genre?
I have always enjoyed discovering foreign cultures and journalling my findings.
5) How do you get ideas for plots and characters?
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich.
6) If, as a one off, (and you could guarantee publication!) you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?
Sci-fi (no plot in mind).
7)Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously.
Writing sprung from travel - a compulsion to record my experiences
8) Marmite? Love it or hate it?
Marmite is okay
9) Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...??
Run and think. The sit and write
10) I promise I won’t tell them the answer to this, but when you are writing, who is more important, your family or your characters?
11) Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?
Professor of English

12) Coffee or tea? Red or white?
Tea, red
13) How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?
I resurrect memorable scenes, then look for a way of stringing them together
14) If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?
Most legible

15) Cornish clotted cream fudge or Strawberry?
Don't like fudge
16) Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?
None spring to mind
17) How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?
Some research before the trip, a lot more, targeting areas of interest, on my return
18) Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?
No. A non-fiction "plot" should not be tidy
19)Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?
Important. Accuracy lends veracity to a non-fic text
20) Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?

21) What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
Travel classics (Thesiger: Arabian Sands, Davison: Tracks, Newby: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Matthiessen: The Snow Leopard, H.M. Tomlinson: The Sea & the Jungle, etc)
22) What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?
Ara (Bhutanese liquor)

23) Last but not least... favourite author?
Peter Matthiessen

Tony Robinson-Smith in the Community Library at Sapcote in Leicestershire, UK with the hard working volunteer librarian.

© Diana Milne 2018 © Tony Robinson-Smith 2018

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Renny de Groot reviews Alien Corn

 Today Renny de Groot reviews Alien Corn by Clare Flynn. The author has kindly offered a paperback copy of the book as a giveaway. To be in with the chance of winning a copy of this wonderful novel, simply leave a comment below or on our Facebook page. 
The winner will be drawn on 11th April 2018.
Good luck!

They faced up to the challenges of war – but can they deal with the troubles of peace? Canadian, Jim Armstrong, married in haste during the second world war, after a one-night stand. When his wife and their small son join him in Canada it’s four years since they’ve seen each other. War bride, Joan discovers Jim has no intention of the family returning to England. She struggles to adapt to life on a remote farm in Ontario, far from her family and cold-shouldered by Jim’s mother. Jim, haunted by his wartime experiences in Italy, Iingering feelings for a former lover, and the demands of the farm, begins to doubt his love for Joan. From the rolling farmland of Ontario to the ravaged landscapes of war-torn Italy, this sweeping love story is the sequel to The Chalky Sea.

Thank you to the author for providing me with a copy of her book.

I didn’t read the first book in this series, but as it happens, it wasn’t necessary. The back-story has been skillfully woven in to allow it to stand on its own merit, although I probably will go back now to read it, as I very much enjoyed this book. 

I love most Historical Fiction, but there is something especially appealing to me about the times before WWI running through to post WWII. There is a certain coming-of-age for the entire world that continues to resonate, no matter how many stories I read from this period. The key with this book, as with any that really works, are the characters. In Jim and Joan, and indeed, the extended family, Flynn has captured the raw emotions that make them authentic and believable.

Jim’s enduring war trauma influences every aspect of his life. His relationship with his parents and sister-in-law, his expectations and dreams for his new wife and son, and his residual feelings for an old lover, are all tainted and affected by the horrors he has experienced. Flynn captures the memories and experiences in a believable manner, reminding us again of what the returning soldier had to endure.
In Joan, Flynn has drawn a realistic character who struggles to acclimatize to an entirely different life from that which she has come to expect. Fitting in with a husband she never actually knew, along with his family and country would be difficult enough, but when confronted with doubt about how her husband feels and a mother-in-law who clearly doesn’t want her, the burden is almost more than she can bear. 

I was especially drawn to Don Armstrong, Jim’s father. In a seemingly alien world, he tries to welcome Joan. In this passage, when Joan is feeling especially demoralized, he makes her feel that she has a friend in him.
The man nodded, then said. ‘Pay no attention to Helga. She’ll get used to you. The important thing is that Jim loves you. That’s all that matters.’
Joan felt her lip trembling again and turned her head away. Her voice brittle, she said, ‘I’ve never been on a farm before. It’ll take a bit of getting used to. I lived in a town.’
‘Thank you.’
She looked back, frowning in puzzlement.
‘For agreeing to come here. Must have been hard for you.’

There is an artistry to both the cover and the writing that made this book a pleasure from start to finish. In reading it, I was continually reminded of a friend, whose mother was an English war-bride. She too, came armed with false impressions of what life would be like; unprepared for the small clap-board house with no inside plumbing, in rural Nova Scotia. From the stories I heard, she never overcame her disappointment and endured, rather than lived her life. This book captures those same struggles in an extremely authentic manner.
The settings in the book were well managed. I live in Ontario, Canada and felt that the author had done her homework in order to create a believable location for the story.
In summary, this character-driven story is well structured and told. I enjoyed it and recommend it.

Author Bio:


Historical novelist Clare Flynn is a former global marketing director and business owner. She now lives in Eastbourne on the south coast of England and most of her time these days is spent writing her novels – when she's not gazing out of her windows at the sea.

Clare is the author of six novels and a short story collection. Her books deal with displacement –her characters are wrenched away from their comfortable existences and forced to face new challenges – often in outposts of an empire which largely disappeared after WW2.

Her next novel, The Gamekeeper's Wife, will be published in spring 2018. It is set in 1919/20 and deals with the lasting effects of war on those who fought, and their families.

All Clare's novels feature places she knows well and she does extensive research to build the period and geographic flavour of her books. A Greater World - 1920s Australia; Kurinji Flowers – pre-Independence India; Letters from a Patchwork Quilt – nineteenth century industrial England and the USA; The Green Ribbons – the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century in rural England, The Chalky Sea - World War II England (and Canada) and its sequel The Alien Corn - post WW2 Canada. She has also published a collection of short stories - both historical and contemporary, A Fine Pair of Shoes and Other Stories.

Clare is fluent in Italian and loves spending time in Italy. In her spare time she likes to quilt, paint and travel as often and as widely as possible. She is an active member of the Historical Novel Society, the Romantic Novelists Association, The Society of Authors and the Alliance of Independent Authors.

About the reviewer:
Renny deGroot is a first generation Canadian of Dutch parents. Her debut novel, Family Business, was shortlisted for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize, 2015.  Her second novel, After Paris, has also been well received, with the current interest in all things WW1.  Renny has a BA in English Literature from Trent University.
Renny lives in rural Ontario with her elderly Chocolate lab, Great Pyrenees and young Golden Retriever.